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Union activity escalates in demand for fair pay

Unison striker

See Li under a Creative Commons Licence

Unions have co-ordinated strike action across Britain this week in a call for fair pay and protection of services.

Monday morning saw workers from the National Health Service (NHS) out on the picket lines. On Tuesday, despite the London Underground workers’ strike being cancelled and an injunction being taken out against a planned Further Education (FE) walk-out, some action took place in London. On Wednesday, tens of thousands of people took part in PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) strikes. Action this week will culminate with ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’, a demonstration in London and Glasgow on Saturday.  

Since 2010, the failure of the government to increase pay in accordance with inflation means that public-sector workers have experienced a pay cut in real terms. For NHS workers and members of the University and College Union (UCU) this cut works out at around 15 per cent; for local government workers, 20 per cent.

Strikes back in July highlighted the fact that a 1-per-cent pay rise is still a cut in pay in real terms. And yet NHS workers are being refused even this. Strike action was carried out by nurses, paramedics, midwives, ambulance drivers and other staff. The midwifery union, the RCM, walked out for the first time in their 133-year history. Across the country support was shown for those on the picket lines. A compilation of comments from midwives on the Guardian website reveals a common theme: for those in professions with the burden of care – the majority of whom are women – overtime and unsociable hours are the norm. These are some of the greatest givers in our society and the government are refusing to give back.

Following NHS strike action, some unions are continuing action this week by ensuring that staff work only their contracted hours and do no overtime.

On Tuesday, the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) union cancelled a two-day London Underground workers’ strike. Unison, Unite and Further Education UCU members were also scheduled to strike. However, this was called off after a high-court injunction was taken out against FE strikers. Campaigning group NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) reported that the Principal of Westminster Kingsway College was behind the injunction and an emergency demonstration against the injunction was called at 1.15pm at Westminster Kingsway on Tuesday.

Hannah Sketchley, Democracy and Communications Officer at the University College London Union, attended the emergency demonstration. She said that one benefit of the injunction was that it could radicalize people into action. Such measures highlight the injustice of attempting to crush unions’ right to strike and expose the fears of those in power. Sketchley also noted that around 40 people attended the demo, which turned quickly into a union assembly – a much more constructive use of time.

On Wednesday, PCS strikes across the country yielded a similarly positive response as the NHS strikes. With civil and public servants and public-sector workers on government contracts walking out, the strike caused disruption to tax helplines and court proceedings. Many strikers took the opportunity to lobby their MPs for fair pay, taking letters directly to constituency offices. PCS says that it is now time to build for the demonstration on Saturday.

Many unions, including the National Union of Students (NUS), will attend this weekend’s Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ protest. As publicity for the demonstration reveals, ‘The UK has one of the highest proportions of low-paid workers in the developed world.’

Covering the strikes back in July, I commented that strike action, such as that undertaken in July and this week, would make it ‘harder to question the legitimacy of trade unions in the democratic process’. Although there have been few improvements to fair pay since the July strikes, the escalation in union activity this week backs up my claim. It is also a reflection on the critical need for a pay rise in the public sector. Britain has a history of union activity that the neoliberal state is finding increasingly harder to stamp out. Soon the government will have to start listening. 

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